Category Archives: Post-Colonialism

The Munaf Patel ‘Spin’ Question

I just read Andy Roberts’ comments on Munaf Patel’s lack of pace, and I’m a bit confused:

“When he [Munaf] came to the West Indies in 2006, he was quick,” Roberts said. “But now, he is spinning the ball. Ishant Sharma with his height and action was very promising when he began, but now he seems to have lost steam.”

Roberts claims to diagnose a larger ‘problem’ with Indian bowlers: as soon as they make their international debut, a conspiracy of pressure and know-it-all coaches convince them to change their style. The evidence comes in a batch of three: Irfan Pathan (who famously disintegrated during the last West Indies tour); Munaf Patel, and Ishant Sharma. The reason I’m confused by this critique is that Patel’s recent performance cannot be impeached; the guy was the third highest wicket-taker at the World Cup and has an average in the low-20s over the past dozen games.

I suspect the source of this criticism — and the reaction it provoked from Javagal Srinath and Roger Binny — may come arise from two subtle undercurrents: 1) Indians are generally sensitive to claims their pace bowlers aren’t really ‘pace’ bowlers. Foreign bowlers are routinely described as ‘fast,’ but ours are ‘medium fast’ or simply ‘medium.’ This wouldn’t be a problem, but there’s a large segment of cricket fans who connect pace with masculinity, and not hurling a ball down the pitch is apparently a girly thing to do. The insecurity is compounded by Hindu-Muslim relations; I’ve often heard it said the best cricket team would combine Pakistan’s bowlers with India’s batsmen.

And 2) Roberts has just come off a tour promoting the new cricket documentary Fire in Babylon. For those who’ve resisted my (and others’) countless reviews, the film basically is a paean to ultra-fast bowling, exemplified by the likes of Roberts and Holding et al. Roberts unabashedly argues his fast bowling was merely giving back to Whites (particularly the Australians) what they had dished out for decades. So, for him to see fast bowlers not use pace but guile and mystery to achieve the same ends — i.e., taking wickets — must be difficult. And indeed, that has always been my central problem with Roberts’ kind of argument: in order to defeat the West, we have to imitate it. That line of thinking leads to less creativity and a benchmark not at all suited to diversity and self-expression.


A History Of Cricket’s “Twirlymen”

The Economist reviews a new book on the history of spin bowling. An interesting point to note:

Spin bowlers are the game’s revolutionaries. Even their mysterious lexicon—googlies, Chinamen, flippers, doosras—suggests constant innovation. When the googly was first unleashed at the end of the 19th century, batsmen huffed that it wasn’t in the spirit of the game because they couldn’t tell which way the ball was about to spin.

You see these protests about bowling methods from time to time. In recent history, we have seen controversies over the doosra and reverse-swing fast bowling, debates made all the more intractable and difficult by racial/post-colonial issues (i.e., West v. South Asia). That’s not to say opposition to these deliveries is prima facie racial or motivated by less-than-honorable motives. It just helps explain why we get so touchy when these issues arise.

The Sacked IPL Cheerleader

Quite a torrid affair. For those, like me, who came to the story late, here’s the run-down:

The IPL honchos fired Gabriella Pasqualotto, a 22-year-old South African cheerleader, after a cricketer (possibly Australian) complained about some anonymous blog posts she wrote (and her Twitter account is here).

If you’re looking for the writings in question, they’re apparently hosted by The Alternative Cricket Almanack, one of the fresher cricket blogs around. This is the part that’s driving some people batty:

‘Ol Graeme Smith will flirt with anything while his girlfriend lurks behind him. The Aussies are fun but naughty, such as Aiden Blizzard and Dan Christian. By the end of a crazy evening, a certain someone had played kissing catchers with three girls known to me only, although he has his own girlfriend back home. He cooed to each girl, “Come home with me, I just want to cuddle!’

Oh, please! I have come to realise that cricketers are the most loose and mischievious sportsmen I have come across. Makes me wonder if I should worry about them more then the commoners on the street! I still have a long while here, so I shall keep my tip list in mind.

I don’t know what to make of this. My thoughts on IPL cheerleaders should be fairly clear by now: I don’t like that they’re around; I don’t like that they’re mostly white, and no, I’m not inclined to feel better about the Indian IPL cheerleaders either. This isn’t the first time an IPL cheerleader controversy has erupted; during the South Africa season, it came out that the Indians organizing the event didn’t want any black cheerleaders.

But I’m not blaming Pasqualotto for the excerpt above. That’s obviously the men’s fault. We’ve known for some time that cricketers aren’t the best behaved gentlemen, Victorian game or no. Recall Dileep Premachandran’s chilling column on ‘attitood.’ Ideally, cricketers wouldn’t behave like other types of athletes, but in the modern era — constant touring, training and money — it’s hard to fight this evolution. Of course, respecting women and their rights should be part of this trend as well.

Pasqualotto knew she was taking a risk with her blog posts (hence the anonymity), but her dismissal seems an overreaction. I also recall a moment from college when a post-colonialism professor told us he didn’t worry too much about Baywatch in America, but more about the fact it will be watched by millions of Indians. The white foreign cheerleader allows the Indian man all he could ever want: a hyper-sexualized portrayal of thoroughly passive femininity (they cheer on the men), but also a barrier that keeps their ‘lewdness’ from spreading into domestic culture (leaving Indian women hostage to archaic gender conventions).

One can make an argument that liberated women in the West can enjoy projecting their sexuality as part of their freedom (a debatable point, to be sure). But what happens when these women collide with an ancient civilization like India’s? Pasqualotto provides the answer:

To the citizens, we are practically like walking porn! All eyes are on you all the time; it is complete voyeurism. The women double take, see you and then pretend you do not exist. The men see your face, then your boobs, your butt, and then your boobs again! As we walk, all you hear is “IPL, IPL!” with a little head jingle!

Fire In Babylon

Waited in line Thursday night to catch Fire In Babylon, a hugely compelling documentary of the West Indies cricket team (1975-1985). My quick review: this is an unbelievable piece of cricket folklore. Get the DVD now. My long review:

1. I’m young, so I missed this whole era. To be re-introduced to legends like Viv Richards was hugely gratifying. It’s not just that Richards was a good batsman; he also had, as he says, a certain amount of swagger — chewing gum while batting; staring at upstart bowlers; not wincing when hit by a fast ball. Few batsmen have that same presence now, even though batsmen rule the game now. (The best part of this movie is seeing batsmen squirm; few in the audience will realize just how far the scales have tipped in their favor since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ruled.)

2. The film itself does a good job of moving quickly (though the Kerry Packer episode could have been edited out, in my opinion). First, it sets up the political/cultural moment in the Caribbean circa 1960s/1970s, so as to explain just why the West Indies cricket team mattered so much. Then, it follows the team’s initial failure in Australia, to its never-ending victories. A good amount of political commentary as well.

2A. It could have been better with more cricket though. There’s a moment when the film slows to show Michael Holding bowling an angry over in England, and it’s electrifying. (It’s this over, against B. Close.) The producers/editors should have done more of this — though I understand why they felt wary, given that they were trying to get as big an audience as possible. (Seeing Malcom Marshall catch and bat with a broken arm — simply incredible.)

3. How brutal is cricket? I complain now about injuries to cricketers, and they are serious, but to watch what batsmen faced in those days…the audience in the cinema gasped several times, and with each one, you got the sense they had discovered a Big Lie — this cricket, it hasn’t and never has been for gentlemen! What separates this from rugby?

4. The movie’s central premise, though, is a difficult one for me. Basically, Clive Lloyd and the West Indians swear never again to fare as badly as they did while touring Australia in 1975, when Lilee/Thompson scared the form out of them. Lloyd’s answer — we can bowl just as fast as they can — is satisfying on one level (political equality; beating the masters at their own game), but also disappointing (imitation isn’t the best political protest). Now, there’s a place for this logic initially in the post-colonial moment — I just don’t think it’s useful 60/70 years on. In other words: India, please, please, don’t try to become Australia. Imagine a different trajectory! (See Gandhi/Tagore’s views on nationalism for more on this line of thought.)

5. The filmmakers made a smart, but risky, decision to feature only West Indians talking about West Indian cricket. You see almost no one else — no Ian Botham, no Tony Grieg — in the present day reflecting on that period. I like it. This is as much about history and the power of a region’s narrative as it is about what the world thinks.

6. I feel really, really sorry for Colin Croft.

7. Sunil Gavaskar comes off very badly. The next time you hear him commentating in his trademark condescending tone — oh, these batsmen, they don’t know how bad we had it! — remind him about India’s disastrous tour of the West Indies.

8. The central mystery remains, though: how did one region — mere dots on the globe, as one team member said — produce so many greats over such an extended period?

8A. It’s hard, by the end of the movie, to see these old West Indian men talk about their team. You see footage of them bowling, batting, protesting, training, and drinking beer in their dressing rooms…The best part about Fire in Babylon isn’t just that it’s a great historical tribute to these athletes; it’s also a two-hour exercise in nostalgia and lives and days gone by.

Fire In Babylon, New York City Screening

Via Peter Della Penna of DreamCricket (and a fellow N.J. resident), comes exciting news about Fire in Babylon, the documentary of West Indies cricket (long anticipated by Samir Chopra):

“Fire in Babylon” premiered at the London Film Festival in October. It also appeared at the Glasgow Film Festival in February and the Adelaide Film Festival in March. The first of four screenings at Tribeca will take place on Saturday April 23 at 8:30 p.m. Riley hopes that sports fans and non-sports fans in New York will view the film with equal satisfaction.

Timings and logistics available here. “It was like slaves whipping the asses of the masters.” Before India, before Pakistan and before Sri Lanka, there was the West Indies. See you all there! Trailer:

Indian IPL Cheerleaders

From Times of India:

Pune Warriors, during their Indian Premier League (IPL) encounter with Delhi Daredevils on Sunday, unveiled a new concept at the D.Y. Patil Sports Complex by replacing cheergirls with traditional Indian ‘Cheer Queens’ to goad on the team.

The concept is a brainchild of Sahara India Pariwar’s Managing Worker Chairman Subrata Roy. Indian girls dressed in designer ethnic dance costumes to cheered for the Pune Warriors, who are having a great run in their maiden IPL season.

Like Amy S. (forever missed), I generally opposed the presence of cheerleaders on or near the cricket field. The game already suffers from a terrible gender deficit (please! More on-air female commentators, and more female umpires!), and I didn’t feel placing women as eye-candy was the way to fix it. That said, an equally difficult problem was that all the cheerleaders were white, a decision obviously born out of a complex mix of marketing and nationalism. IPL organizers could satisfy the male gaze and local feminists by saying they were protecting Indian women, at the expense of the foreigners’.

Which, of course, is a terrible discourse to perpetuate. Allowing Indian men to cheer on white women isn’t the answer — and I’m not sure I much prefer the traditional Indian alternative described above. But it’s a terribly difficult thicket here: on the one hand, I don’t want to sound like right-wing demagogues, who oppose female cheerleaders because they see any role for women outside the kitchen as inappropriate. On the other hand, it’s galling to see shots of scantily clad white women dancing in front of all those male Indian eyes, like some terrible reversal of colonial edicts. What’s the answer?

The Danger Of Indian Cricket Nationalism

Everyone’s raving about Wright Thompson, the American cricket-stranger who wandered around India during the World Cup. Regular readers know I’m skeptical about non-cricket fans writing about the game, but tackling it from a foreigner’s perspective does bring out different tones among sources. It’s one thing to talk to another Indian about the game; it’s another completely to explain it to a (white?) American.

Read, for e.g., what Rahul Bhattacharya had to say:

“The aggression, the brashness,” says Bhattacharya, the cricket writer turned novelist. “It’s now something which Indians see that this is what we have to do to assert our place in the world. We’ve been f—ed over for thousands of years. Everyone has conquered us. Now we’re finding our voice. We’re the fastest-growing economy in the world. We are going to buy your companies. Our cricket team is like going to f—ing abuse you back, and we’re going to win and we’re going to shout in your face after we win. People love that.”

That’s just awful. It’s ironic that in our bid to express our long-suppressed voice, we end up sounding so much like our conquerors. Why is there such a fascination with the Australian way of playing, with all its talk of mental disintegration and toughness? Why must we lose our sense of play and of fun for the sake of winning? Why must we lose our own distinctive style?

Martha Nussbaum, another (white) foreigner has diagnosed this trend very well:

[As] I’ve noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

The Latest Victorian Cricket Rap

Imagine my surprise when I saw that cricket made the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. The story, entitled “In ‘Chap-Hop,’ Gentlemen Rappers Bust Rhymes About Tea, Cricket,” is more about the chap-hop phenomenon, wherein a duo of seemingly old-school upper-class Brits throw down dueling raps.

This single, from “Mr B the Gentle Rhymer,” is the best (uh, only) cricket rap I’ve heard. Sample lyrics: “I’ll take you to the Oval, maybe, I have a a seat in the box daily, or weekly, daily, monthly, yearly/I’m on hand to observe Mike Brearley.”

It’s fun stuff, but it somewhat irks me that cricket is routinely portrayed as an upper-class pursuit in the Western world, and especially in America (see, for e.g., this Esquire cricket photo shoot). That may still be the case in the U.K. — I don’t know enough about the sport there — but the game has obviously acquired more of mass following in India, at least since 1983. Contrast the above rap with photo #21 in this collection.

When Foreign Reporters Tackle Cricket

Kirk Semple of The New York Times had a tough assignment: wake up at 5 a.m., and watch a bunch of South Asians enjoy the India-Pakistan semifinal. The result isn’t pretty — the lede made me cringe:

If there seemed to be a shortage of taxis at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, one possible reason was apparent on the streets of Jackson Heights in Queens.

Ugh. The rest of the article is better, but still mildly annoying. The fans come across as almost insane (“he…excitedly rocked back and forth…”), and Semple treats the exercise like an anthropologist venturing into Papua New Guinea (no one “expected any trouble among the customers”). There’s also the usual question any Western reporter must ask a cricket fan: how do you deal with the game’s duration?

The trouble with the India-Pakistan storyline, compelling as it may seem to Western editors, was that it completely overpowered any real discussion of the game itself. If you read comparable coverage of soccer World Cup fans, articles tended to note their passion, but also their reactions to the actual sporting event (e.g., I don’t like X player; I don’t think this team will do well; I’m frustrated by Y move…). But most Western reports of the semifinal have tended to emphasize the cultural element of the game — as if people enjoying a sport is not a universal human trait.

Cricket fans, a couple of tips when talking to reporters: a) Do not say the words “cricket is a religion.” Just don’t. It’s a cliche, it’s not true and it confuses the hell out of Westerners and b) Try slipping in snide comments about American football or baseball.

Are South Asian Cricket Audiences “Mature” Enough?

During my blissful two-week vacation in India last month, I came across a number of articles, by foreigners and Indians alike, accusing the average Indian cricket fan of bad faith. These authors argued that Indians are not “cricket crazy” per se; they are Indian cricket crazy. Most would decline the option of watching a fascinating contest between, say, Australia and South Africa — if only because their beloved Sehwag were not on the roster. Attached to this critique was the word “mature” — that is, “mature” cricket audiences clap when their opponents score runs, or when their batsmen reach certain milestones. Apparently, Indian audiences don’t count in this category.

Now, I’ve made similar observations in the past — I have said most Indians don’t care about the game itself, and I have defended the right for audiences to boo particular villains (i.e., Ricky Ponting). That said, Indian audiences aren’t uniformly bad; no doubt, they will cheer their own team more than the other, but I still note applause, however weak, when foreign teams perform well in India. But here’s my problem with the “mature” line of argument: first, I see nothing wrong with being “immature” (i.e. not watching games involving other teams, and not clapping for other teams). For one thing, this isn’t behavior unique to Indians.  Witness the recent rout during the Ashes in Australia, when local audiences largely abandoned their team (and commentators fretted about whether Australian cricket had entered a dark new age). And isn’t it often said of the English that they only care about cricket when their team is playing against the Australians?

Secondly, what is so wrong with particular audiences watching a game only for particular reasons? Cricket doesn’t exist in a vacuum; for most people, it is a game connected with specific cultures and traditions. For cricket purists to wander the globe and parse through (the already small) population of cricket fans and say, “You’re a true fan; you’re not a true fan; you understand the nuance; you don’t” — well, it smacks of an elitism that would make proud the Victorian veterans of the game. And that, of course, is part of the larger problem — the post-colonial baggage we keep carrying around. Many of my American friends, as sports-crazy as they come, refuse to watch particular finals or match-ups when their home teams are not involved, or if the two teams playing don’t have particular heft. This is a natural reaction — but you don’t see many accounts from American essayists bemoaning a lack of respect or “true” interest in basketball or baseball or whatever.

Two quick final points: obviously, I love cricket, and I would, if I had more time, devote my life to watching all its games, even the ones involving the Netherlands or Kenya. Maybe I’m an exception. But two: Ashis Nandy, in his amazing Tao of Cricket (seriously: go read this book; it’s quoted almost everyday because of its famous first line — go look that up too) noted that Indian audiences often had a mythical respect for foreign teams that did well in India. I forget the details, but he said they looked on West Indian bowlers as necessary villains; that is, roles that needed to be played by particular people to make the story unfold. They hated the villains, but also respected them. (Again, I forget the particular mythologies Nandy cites — but it’s good stuff. Anyone have a copy and know what I’m rambling about?)